Wednesday 17 January 2018

Trap's troops marching to familiar tune

David Kelly IN BUDAPEST

Not a night for anyone wanting to keep their feet firmly planted on terra firma.

Last week, an earthquake. This week's meteorological portents tossed us a thunder and lightning storm to beckon Ireland's last warm-up game.

The forecast for Sunday in Poznan is, one suspects, for tropical cyclones.

Giovanni Trapattoni often references to the man above; acts of God seem to be stalking this Irish team. For all the world, it seemed as if the Danube had been rerouted through the Ferenc Puskas stadium.

Ireland, though, seem impressively stoic these days whatever the conditions.

A core stability and consistency -- veering towards deadening conservatism for the harshest of us critics in the bleachers -- inures this team to ever harsher climates.

Ireland's tortuously committed progress towards the stability that now underscores this current squad can be reflected in the numbers.

When Robbie Keane spoke glowingly before this friendly of the 13-match record that has backboned the imperceptibly growing belief amongst his squad, he beckoned the press corps to question when there had ever been such a run before.

Quick as a flash, the resident 'statto' offered that Brian Kerr had matched the feat in his short-lived reign.

"He did alright then, didn't he?" sniffed Keane, clearly unimpressed to have been thrown off kilter.

This Ireland wants to forget the last decade of under-achievement -- even if most of its current leading characters remain implicated in the yawning.

Instead, the unbeaten records that underpinned Mick McCarthy's World Cup qualifying run, until ended by Iran in the superfluous 2001 play-off defeat, or the 17-game stretch that hauled Ireland to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, remain more pertinent reference points.

As this team cleaves ever closer together, mining ever deeper resources of competitive spirit from predominantly limited sources, unlikely precedents are mirrored in today's statistical landmarks.

That Italy ended two of Ireland's historically lengthy unbeaten runs -- under Charlton and Kerr -- offer stark reminders of the sterner tasks that lie before them when Euro 2012 officially kicks off.

Last night, the breath of the competition brushed across the collars of these players; the thunderous lightning and rain threatened to drown them, too. But they have learned to swim, not sink.

Not always with a proficiently smooth stroke but, even as their imposing Group C tests await, they seem determined that their flapping doesn't submerge them.

Much like Kerr's team, this has been a mostly unloved bunch; the closer the increasingly feverish country gets to tournament kick-off, the warmer the embrace.

Microscopic eyes focused on John O'Shea's fitness. The last time he was here, his Manchester United side had to abandon a fixture against the Urawa Red Diamonds all of eight years ago.

Slaven Bilic, the Croatia manager, viewed proceedings with a more circumspect eye.

Nothing here will have moved him to fill his foolscap with little more than accountancy exercises at set-piece time.

Bilic, like the rest of the world, knows what to expect from Ireland. More importantly, Ireland know with absolute certainty what is expected of themselves.

And, although there are reference points in past Irish teams, it is what happens in the next fortnight that will ultimately define their efforts.

Stylistically, the imperceptible changes wrought against Bosnia appeared to be allowed some free rein.

Hence, Stephen Ward whipped in the first meaningful cross. His concession of possession on half-way, earning a blast from his manager, was a more familiar presentation of Trap's Ireland.

So too a familiarly brusque tackle from Dunne on the lively Adam Szalai, a scything, sliding effort which may yet become a totem for Ireland's efforts this month.

Or indeed, the remarkably agile save by Shay Given, requiring an arresting change of direction, which served as a reminder that, ultimately, so much will rely on so few in this squad.

Keane, upon whose shoulders so much of Ireland's burden is shared alongside his schoolboy mucker, was deployed in an unusually high position for much of the early throes.

Instead, it was Kevin Doyle who scampered deep in an attempt to initiate bursts of possession; it was not a confident assertion of Keane's unlimited reserves of fitness, despite his public proclamations to the contrary.

His impotence, after a fitful hour, will not have infused Irish supporters with heart-thumping confidence.

In a lively affair, the Hungarians were adept at exposing familiar Irish weaknesses; and Bilic will have noted how Ward's difficulties required Trapattoni to instruct Damien Duff to switch wings, not altogether for offensive reasons.

It is ever thus with Ireland; ensuring the defensive regime is instituted with sufficient rigour to ensure that playing without the ball is a more comfortably attainable feat than playing with it.

When the imposing Balasz Dzudzsak was twice released to test Given's reflexes, the gaping hole between Ireland's midfield duo and the exposed central defence would have extracted a knowing smirk from the Croatian manager, whose default emotion seems to be extreme cockiness ahead of Sunday's opener.

Ireland, he will have confirmed, are a team relying on counter-attack purely because they must rely so much on defending. Again, the shots on target statistic reflected the tenor of the game.

Irish Independent

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